Wisconsin Athletic Club ponders vacant Kohl’s stores
By Steve Jagler, of SBT
Wisconsin Athletic Club Inc. is on the verge of expanding its waistline in the land of cheese, brats and beer. The West Allis-based company plans to double the size of its Wauwatosa health and fitness club and hopes to build several more clubs in southeastern Wisconsin over the next three years.
Ray O’Connor, chief executive officer of the firm, said he has contacted a real estate broker who is inquiring on his behalf about the availability of several vacant former Kohl’s Food Stores in greater Milwaukee.
In particular, O’Connor wants to know if any of the larger stores of 40,000 square feet or more could be renovated into new locations for the Wisconsin Athletic Club.
"We have expressed interest. We have identified the sites we would be most interested in. We have looked at them," O’Connor said. "We’ve been all over the area, and we’re actively looking for sites."
With one eye on the horizon for new sites, O’Connor and his partners, Keith Nygren and Ted Torcivia, also are focusing on the Wauwatosa expansion at 8700 W. Watertown Plank Rd.
Work will begin on the $4 million expansion to the building in October, and they hope the work will be completed by the first quarter of 2004.
The building is located on the Milwaukee County Grounds and is owned by a partnership that includes Wisconsin Athletic Club, Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital and two private investors, whom O’Connor declined to name.
The complex will be expanded by 42,000 square feet. Wisconsin Athletic Club’s portion of the building will double from its current 25,000 square feet to 50,000.
Froedtert also will expand its Sports Medicine Clinic at the site.
The project will include knocking out part of the structure’s north wall to accommodate the expansion, which will include a new gymnasium, several group exercise rooms and another swimming pool.
The addition has been designed by J.P. Storrs Inc. of West Bend. The general contractor for the project has not yet been selected.
The growth of the Wauwatosa site and Wisconsin Athletic Club’s plans to open new locations are being fueled by the rising popularity of health and fitness programs throughout the region, O’Connor said
"I think clearly the industry has had an up-tick in the last three years," O’Connor said. "People are understanding that every day, you have to do something (aerobic). The bottom line is exercise is good for you, whether it’s chasing your grandchildren around or running in a marathon. The need for exercise is intergenerational."
Of course, the fact that about 59% of the state’s population is either overweight or obese and in need of some type of physical fitness routine doesn’t hurt Wisconsin Athletic Club’s bottom line.
The standard news cliché is that New Year’s Eve partygoers make resolutions and join health clubs the next day, only to slowly drift away from the routines weeks later.
"Our biggest sales day used to be New Year’s Day. That’s no longer true," Nygren said. "Now, people are coming to us much more evenly distributed throughout the year. We help them sustain it. What we tell them is, ‘You didn’t get here over night, and you’re not going to change overnight. The key is sustaining it in a lifestyle change."
Those "lose-10-pounds-in-a-week" products are scams in which consumers quickly regain the weight because their lifestyles have not changed, O’Connor said.
Wisconsin Athletic Club employs a full-time registered dietician who helps club members eat more healthy foods to complement their exercise routines, he said.
Group exercise activities, such as spinning and yoga, are growing in popularity and will receive increased emphasis in the expanded Wauwatosa club and in the new locations the company will open, O’Connor said.
"People come here because people are social," O’Connor said.
The company, which began in 1998 with two clubs and 3,600 members, has grown to five clubs with 11,000 members. Those totals will double with the firm’s new locations to be built over the next few years.
Wisconsin Athletic Club also is tapping into a sub-market by providing custom fitness and health facilities in corporate buildings. The company recently opened a fitness center at Stark Investments’ plush headquarters in St. Francis.
"We provided the design work for the fitness facility they have and ordered all the equipment, and we have personal trainers there when they need them," Nygren said. "They own the equipment. It’s kind of a new concept."
Stark interviewed three fitness club providers before selecting Wisconsin Athletic Club to set up its operation in the headquarters building overlooking Lake Michigan.
"We have three camps of users. There’s the early morning crowd, the lunchtime crowd and the after-work crowd. It’s wonderful," said Linda Gorens-Levey, chief operating officer of Stark. "It’s a great benefit to offer to employees. Being in the money market business, it’s nice to have such a great stress reliever."
Wisconsin Athletic Club is in discussions with the owners of other office buildings in southeastern Wisconsin to provide on-site fitness centers for employees, Nygren said.
In addition, Wisconsin Athletic Club is partnering with more than 100 corporate clients who see the value of a fit workforce and agree to defray the membership costs for their employees.
"Any business can put up four walls, but we’re providing a product that people seem to want," O’Connor said.
Sept. 19, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee